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WHALE FALL @ PICA Performance Space gets 9/10

Whale Fall
@ PICA Performance Space

Saturday, February 27, 2021


Touching, beautiful and often gut-wrenching, Whale Fall, written by Ian Sinclair, produced by The Kabuki Drop, commissioned by PICA, and co-presented with Perth Festival, is an (ahem) whale of an emotional rollercoaster. A thought-provoking set with deft sound and lighting design complemented by gripping performances by the ensemble, this collaboration is a carefully crafted work of beautiful, beautiful art.

At PICA’s performance space, the audience was greeted by an interesting set; a giant sloping deck slanting downwards, with a single table upon it. The angle made it feel precarious; perfect for the show it staged. The space was blue-lit, evoking the ocean. White sand around the decking added to this feeling. Accompanied by a gentle soundtrack, a pensive mood was created.

Right from the get-go, this show was intense. Opening with the first in a series of monologues about the phenomenon of the death-cycle of the whale, or “whale fall,” actor Ashton Brady as Caleb showed off his chops as a young performer with aplomb. And what a tough role this must have been for a young person to play: a character who wishes to transition from Haley to Caleb officially, who must then witness and navigate the myriad of intense emotional responses this elicits from his family around him. His birth mother’s struggle to reconcile the daughter she left for her father to raise alone as an infant with this prepubescent boy he has become; his father’s unfailing love for him and his desire to help him be happy. Brady did a fantastic job with each monologue and each interaction, playing a challenging role with nuance.

The design team did a wonderful job to create the atmosphere of a family holiday home by the beach. With gentle lighting transitions and spare but effective use of props, we effortlessly flitted from the beach to the kitchen table, to Caleb’s room. And this is where Nadine, birth mother of Caleb, found herself after a long absence. Consummately played by Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Nadine returned to the home by the sea where she grew up with her father, summoned by her estranged husband (Luke Hewitt) and his new partner (Alexandria Steffensen).

As the mother of Caleb, they needed her to sign the medical consent forms for Caleb to begin the long journey towards medically affirming his gender. Beresford-Ord did a brilliant job of creating a likeable character out of one that shouldn’t be, given her unexplained abandonment of her infant daughter. Bit-by-bit you saw the pain and tragedy, yet the strength to be different, and it became easier to understand that despite her long absence from her child’s life, they’ve grown up similar to their mother in many ways.

Hewitt played Irving, Caleb’s father, almost too believably. The ever-suffering father who genuinely loves their child more than anything in the world, the pain and bitterness of his experience tainted his facial expressions at all times. Steffensen was a calm, loyal and welcome presence. More a mother to Caleb than Nadine, in the show she acted as the mediator, the glue that holds everything together. Being outside of the family she could come to the proceedings with feelings of love, and did so. Towards everyone…even Nadine.

Writer Ian Sinclair has created a masterpiece here. Inspired by environmental writer Rebecca Giggs’ essay, Whale Fall, tying everything in with the death of whales and how their carcasses become a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for any sealife lucky enough to be around to witness it is a stroke of brilliance. Caleb’s love and fascination of marine life is a way for him to use science to anchor himself in an uncertain world—even their beloved holiday home is being pulled into the sea because of climate change—and the theme of a whale’s dead body providing life to those in its environment is a beautiful symbol for shedding or transcending one’s body without hurting those around you.

The team were directed marvellously by Melissa Cantwell. Throughout the piece there was sustained and patient use of silence which served to heighten the drama, pulling the audience in. Throughout the 90 minutes, there was no thought about what was going on outside as the audience was treated to a polished performance delivered so real, we may as well have been flies on the wall. This one will stay with you for days after you’ve experienced it.


Photos by Ian Sinclair



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